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Westerners & Conservation Values – A Reality Check – An Interview with Harris Sherman

It is high time for some Congressional representatives from the West to understand that their constituents want to preserve, not dissipate, these national landscapes.

In this interview, Harris comments on the dichotomy between how many Western Congressional members view our public lands and waters and how most of us feel about them.

What are the big headlines that popped for you from this year’s Conservation in the West poll? Are there any trends that are especially noteworthy for the water world? 

Even with cynicism over recent polling, I was impressed by the objectivity and professionalism of the State of the Rockies poll undertaken by two highly respected Republican and Democratic pollsters. Here’s what stood out for me:

First, the conservation ethic in the West is alive and well. People identify themselves as conservationists. This is a bipartisan passion that Westerners have for our public lands. Importantly, the tourist and recreation economies – hunting, fishing, hiking, rafting, skiing, camping, snowmobiling- are on the ascendancy and constitute a vital economic force. For example, the Outdoor Industries Association’s new study shows that outdoor recreation constitutes a $650 billion industry nationally providing 6 million direct jobs, many of which are in the West.

Second, as you know, there is a serious ongoing debate over transferring public lands to the states or selling public lands to private parties. This concept is supported by the 2016 Republican National Platform and is a recurring theme in recent legislative efforts by Representatives Bishop and Chaffetz of Utah. Fortunately, both the President and Secretary Zinke have stated their opposition to the transfer or sale of public lands. What the poll underscores is strong bipartisan support in the Western states for keeping federal public lands intact. It is high time for some Congressional representatives from the West to understand that their constituents want to preserve, not dissipate, these national landscapes.

The job performance of key federal land agencies was also polled. With so much attention recently given to standoffs involving the Bundys and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, one might expect widespread condemnation of federal land programs and managers. Instead, as graphically indicated by the poll, there is remarkabley support for federal land managers within the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service and even the BLM. The public perceives these agencies as doing a good job often under difficult circumstances and with limited budgets.

A third takeaway relates to the recent controversies over national monuments, specifically the Bear’s Ear and Gold Butte designations. The poll demonstrates overwhelming public support (in the range of the 75-80%) for retaining existing national monuments. And even in Utah and Nevada where the recent designations occurred, by a considerable margin, there is greater support than opposition for the designations.

My last observation is that most voters want a relatively centrist approach when it comes to balancing conservation, energy development, and other uses on public lands. While Westerners are leaning more to conservation, they support a balance by allowing energy development (both renewable and nonrenewable) on lands that are suitable to resource development but avoiding lands that environmentally sensitive (wilderness, roadless areas or lands with threatened species). And where development occurs, it is done under thoughtful environmental regulations. This is largely a continuation of the way in which we have managed public lands over the years

What does it mean that public opinion in the West is moving toward conservation values around both water and land, while the administration is moving away from them? 

This year’s poll didn’t focus directly on water and climate, but it cites a trending toward a conservation ethic. This includes a growing concern over climate change and its impact on water, drought and our forests. Combined with population growth, where the West is one of the nation’s fastest growing regions, there is obvious concern regarding over allocation of water resources. How will agriculture, municipal, industrial, energy, and environmental sectors share this diminishing resource? To what extent will climate change exacerbate the problem?

No area is more impacted by the climate debate than western forests. Carpe Diem has played an essential role in evaluating these issues. The decline in the health of our forests is clearly attributable to a warming climate where the bark beetle epidemic has exploded, resulting in 40-50 million acres of dead trees and unprecedented catastrophic fires. Post-fire flooding has brought huge amounts of siltation, erosion, and sedimentation to our streams and reservoirs. That impacts storage and creates major water quality problems.

Even more importantly, because of catastrophic fires and the subsequent difficulty of regenerating forests in these depleted lands, there are serious concerns about impacted forests being able to return to a healthy state where they can perform the vital functions of retaining, filtering, and releasing water. Remember that more than 50% of our drinking water in the West comes from national forests.

With that said, the jury is out on how the new administration will react to water, climate and forest health. Will the new administration heed the concerns and support the goals of Westerners outlined in this poll? We’ll just have to wait and see. The current cynicism and denial within the administration over climate science and the early signals that it will undo the Paris Climate accords as well as the Clean Power Plan will have enormous implications for western lands. Proposals to slash key environmental budgets for EPA, and USDA, and NOAA and the Great Lakes water quality programs do not bode well. We have yet to see how the specific budgets and programs of the Forest Service, NRCS, and the Department of the Interior agencies will play out.

In the West there is a growing bipartisan initiative to protect water and forestry resources through public-private partnerships. Carpe Diem has been in the middle of many of these efforts in which a number of exciting models have emerged. Hopefully, the new administration will embrace these bipartisan efforts and take these efforts to a new level.

How do you see the demographic transitions in the West (and that show up in this report) affecting the water/climate/forest conversation?

The demographics of the West demonstrate significant growth during the past decade going forward. Part of this comes from millennials moving from other parts of the US in search of better jobs and better quality of life. A significant increase in minority and immigrant populations has also occurred, again largely tied to job opportunities and quality of life. All of these newcomers value the relationship to the outdoors—the ability to access pubic lands close by and to find high quality recreation. Keeping our public lands intact is critical to maintaining our Western lifestyle for longstanding residents and newcomers alike. To not maintain our forests, waterways, air quality, wildlife resources would be incredibly shortsighted.

Harris Sherman is Senior Counsel with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer. He represents clients in a wide range of natural resource issues including energy (both renewable and nonrenewable), water development, water quality, public lands, Native American projects, outdoor recreation and skiing, forestry, mining, and agriculture. He has pioneered methods to streamline environmental review and permitting processes at the federal, state and local levels. He also has played a central role in major infrastructure and real estate projects throughout the country. Mr. Sherman served as Under Secretary at USDA from 2009-2013 overseeing the US Forest Service.


Photo Credit: David Kingham


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